Is "free" always a good thing?

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by Mike Lake » Tue May 15, 2012 9:47 am
Is "free" necessarily a good thing?

This is a rant - but please bear with me.

The RPi is cheap (or, in marketing speak, "excellent value for money").

In the world of Linux it seems that the key requirement of anything is that it is "free" and "Open Source". Free meaning "costs nothing" and Open Source meaning anyone can change it.

To Linux aficionados everything is beautifully structured, simple and certainly not confusing. The command prompt, and the 2.7 million flags for any command, are totally intuitive. Not much different from MSDOS in the early 1980s come to think of it - and some of the commands are remarkably the same - they should be, one got nicked from the other!

So, Linux is simple and those coming from the world of Windows (which is where most teachers and others will be coming from) will only take a few second to get used to the system and then they will be downloading and installing new software and the latest updates with no problems at all.

.... and pigs can fly.

There is a reason why Microsoft moved from MSDOS to Windows (apart from making oodles of money) and nothing they did had not been done at Xerox Parc (and elsewhere) years before.

However, the size of the PC market running Windows, and the fact that there was only one Windows (not dozens of different flavours produced by dozens of different individuals and different companies none of whom are accountable) encouraged others to provide Windows compatible applications - and most of them did it commercially because someone has to pay the wages. Those companies could approach a world-wide market because they knew that everyone with a PC would be using the same flavour of Windows. This market justified massive investment.

Many companies, including mine (and I hate Microsoft, but I have made a good living producing software to work with their stuff), were set up by people working for someone else during the day and working for themselves during the evenings/nights/weekends/holidays. As soon as that work was good enough to ship they started selling, broke away from their day-jobs and started their own companies.

This is a good thing because they provided jobs for other people and paid them decent wages.

Over the last 30+ years thousands of people round the world have made a good living out of the software and hardware products my very small companies have produced. That means millions have been earned in wages and millions have been paid in taxes. It means that money has been generated which has gone to provide services we all enjoy - from hospitals to schools to roads.

This is a good thing.

I would like to invest a lot of money in a major project to provide a seamless development/teaching environment that will work from infant schools (think Logo/Scratch) to sixth form and beyond. I have done my research, I have discussed it with those at the chalk-face and I am ready to roll.

This would be professionally written, professionally managed, professional packaged, professionally documented and professionally supported.

I am not going to do it.

Why? Because everyone wants everything for free and I would stand no chance of recovering my investment.

I have always believed that you get what you pay for when it comes to major products. I also believe that people value things by what they paid for them.

Of course some brilliant things have been written and are available for free. Who paid the people who did them? In some cases it was Universities - so it was the taxpayer or others who funded the institution. In the case of those beavering way after paid work it is probably their employers who suffer - after all, if you are working flat out during the day (which you should be - because that's what you get paid for) how can you expect to work equally flat out at night? It may work for the very young, but it catches up with you eventually - and your day job (the one that pays the wages) will suffer. Of course, if you are on benefit then it is OK - it is just the taxpayer paying again.

I am really fed up that I have an idea for an excellent product, it has been well received by teachers, I know how to do it, I know how long it will take (roughly - think of a number, multiple by two then double it - this is software development after all) and how much it will cost to develop.

However, in the "free and open" world, especially the education world, I don't stand a cat in hell's chance of getting my investment back - let alone paying myself a few bob.

So, there is a downside to "free" - it stifles commercial investment - unless your are a big company willing to throw marketing money (rather then R&D money) at it to build brand awareness and brand loyalty.
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by jamesh » Tue May 15, 2012 9:58 am
Why do you think you would have to give anything you produce away for free? If it is worth money - people (and in this case, educational authorities) will buy it, because it's the best option, not the cheapest. Educational software is out there, and is sold, because free educational software isn't that great (Scratch and a few others excluded). Remember although there are a lot of 'Linux'/OSS people who only use free software, not everyone is like that. People in the ed sector don't expect free software - they are not the 'Linux' OSS people.
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by grumpyoldgit » Tue May 15, 2012 9:59 am
Leaving aside the Pi and Linux, which are a new development I am not quite sure where you get the idea that things are free in the Education world. My experience of education is that they pay for the hardware, the support of the hardware and for the software. It is common for schools to have Microsoft agreements for the provision and planned upgrading of Microsoft software. It is often common for schools to purchase software and support from companies like RM for the easy control of the curriculum network. A number of educational suppliers sell software designed specifically for schools.
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by chorlton » Tue May 15, 2012 10:09 am
Agree with James and Grumpy.

Redhat are about to pass the $1 billion in revenue mark this year, all on the back of "free" software. You make the point about people who developed their own software in their own time then went on to start their own companies - employing new people and so benefitting the economy. That's exactly what open-source software enables. People can take software which good-hearted developers have made free (both monetarily-as-in-beer and copy-and-do-with-as-you-please) and use it as the basis for a whole new business model.

It sounds like your business plan is as much about providing a value-added service as it is about basic software. Documentation and Education is exactly where people are making money out of software which is free (as in beer). If you're offering something that can't be got for free then people, who are aware of what they're getting, will pay for it.
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by Mike Lake » Tue May 15, 2012 10:16 am
grumpoldgit (sums me up as well!)

At the moment schools are paying through the nose for stuff from Microsoft et al - and Microsoft et al want to keep it that way - which is why they are currenrly "sponsoring" several projects for stuff to use in ICT/IT/Computing. I have seen some of it and it is about "awareness" - not computing. They see their spend as "marketing" rather then R&D because they want to get their feet under the table with the next generation. Of course, they will say something different.

Moving to RPi and Linux changes the perception of the market. PI? Next to nothing. Linux? Free. Apps? Free. (Scratch et al are University projects and available free.)

It's the perception that is the problem.

Maybe I should break a habit of a lifetime: standing on one's own two feet, no subsidies, no grants, invent the product, develop it using your own money, sell it, reinvest - loop forever.

Perhaps I should go cap in hand to the tax payer (remember, governments have no money of their own, only our money) and get a grant.

Investors, such as me, also have a perception. I have been taking risks with major development investments for donkey's years but my current pereption is that the investment is too risky when budgets are tight and the Linux world is for free.
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by shirro » Tue May 15, 2012 10:20 am
The Free as in Free Software does not mean "costs nothing" it means liberty or freedom - the freedom to share and modify the source code. If someone wants to bundle services with the free software and become a billion dollar company that can and has been done.

Schools seem quite willing to spend obscene amounts of money on licensing big name software from Microsoft and Adobe. They seem to be getting into iPads in a big way now as well. The problem with making money on something like a Pi is there is no nice lazy channel as with the app store. You have to do stuff the old fashioned way which I think would be a tough road. Still many companies do sell often some quite expensive products into schools for niche things. [Though if you want to make money sell something to the admin people for admin stuff like keeping track of paper or students - the people who spend the money don't care about curriculum stuff so much]

Developing fancy commercial software for the Pi is missing the point somewhat. This is a device that fills the gaps where there is no profit to be had (not everything that is worthwhile is profitable). Revenues are tied to drm and closed platforms in games consoles and increasingly heading that way in mobile/tablet. The opportunities to learn the fundamentals are being denied to kids. In this case free (as in speech) can be quite a good thing because it allows a community fill the gaps.
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by Mike Lake » Tue May 15, 2012 10:39 am
shirro

I love your point about the lazy app store. I hate that stuff - Apple (and others) forcing you to supply products solely through their outlet and taking a large slice of the cake. Not very good if you want to knock up something quickly for a closed user group (or your mates or your class) - or just for the hell of it. Also these stores are full of dross. That's the main reason why I stick to my Netbook rather than an overpriced fondle slab - I can knock up my own stuff for it. (Bit like the RPi really <g>)

I come from the invent it, make it, sell it, school of business. Over the years I have banged on doors from Tokyo to Taipei to Singapore to San Francisco to Boston to Munich to Turin and to all points in between.

I love kicking doors down and selling things and it's a toss up which is best - inventing it or selling it.

However, if the market preception is shifting, which it is, life gets even hairier than normal.
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by Mike Lake » Tue May 15, 2012 10:49 am
Shirro

"Fancy commercial software"?

Do you mean "bloated" like a lot of the MS stuff? In which case I would be the first to agree - almost all software grows like Topsy until it is so overweight that the average user is using about 5% of it.

I am a great believer in function before the smart-arse fancy stuff.

Just because the RPi is cheap doesn't mean that kids (and the rest of us) shouldn't have the right to professionally written/documented/supported software where someone clearly carries the can.

Don't get me wrong - a lot of the stuff for Linux is VERY professional - including a lot of the free stuff - and a lot of people put a lot of work into it.

However, I am considering a commercial investment which is a whole different ball of wax. (Sorry, I must have turned my cliche avoidance antenna off!)
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by shirro » Tue May 15, 2012 11:09 am
Mike Lake wrote:"Fancy commercial software"?

Do you mean "bloated" like a lot of the MS stuff?


No I rarely use MS software anymore to judge if they are bloated or not. Microsoft does make software to run on embedded systems and phones so I am not sure if bloated is fair.

By "fancy" I mean an extensive feature set or complicated graphic design aren't really vital ingredients for a system like the Pi. LibreOffice is an example of something I think is a bit "fancy" to run on the Pi. Commercial software tends to be "fancy" to impress customers more than their competition. I don't know how much you can pretty up a Python development environment on a constrained system like the Pi before you are getting counter-productive. I don't see how you could invest in software for the Pi and expect much of a return.

Hardware makes a bit more sense as I expect I will easily spend several times the price of the Pi on accessories such as case, breakout boards, better GPIO, sensors, arduinos, rtc, components, breadboards etc over time. I can't see myself buying software for the Pi.
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by jamesh » Tue May 15, 2012 11:13 am
shirro wrote:
Mike Lake wrote:"Fancy commercial software"?

Do you mean "bloated" like a lot of the MS stuff?


No I rarely use MS software anymore to judge if they are bloated or not. Microsoft does make software to run on embedded systems and phones so I am not sure if bloated is fair.

By "fancy" I mean an extensive feature set or complicated graphic design aren't really vital ingredients for a system like the Pi. LibreOffice is an example of something I think is a bit "fancy" to run on the Pi. Commercial software tends to be "fancy" to impress customers more than their competition. I don't know how much you can pretty up a Python development environment on a constrained system like the Pi before you are getting counter-productive. I don't see how you could invest in software for the Pi and expect much of a return.

Hardware makes a bit more sense as I expect I will easily spend several times the price of the Pi on accessories such as case, breakout boards, better GPIO, sensors, arduinos, rtc, components, breadboards etc over time. I can't see myself buying software for the Pi.


But I can see people buying educational software for the Raspi. Especially if is a 'home' version of what their children use at school.
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by Mike Lake » Tue May 15, 2012 11:20 am
Shirro

I think you are reinforcing my own feelings.

However, there is a need for something which provides a seamless and structured path from things like Scratch up to full blown Python. At the moment the path is very peacemeal and anarchic. Nothing wrong with a bit of anarchy, but I am old fashioned enough to believe that structure and a clear development path are important in education - must be because I was a teacher in the days before mountains of paperwork, SATs and all the other stuff got in the way of the real job.

On the hardware side I have also gone down that route.

See the PiHouse on http://www.thepishop.org.

Available from next week.
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by cheery » Tue May 15, 2012 11:42 am
Closed source software stiffles innovation in the first place and deters further improvement of the existing software. So you have the problem of investment and monetizing your ideas, except it's even harder in "non-free" world, because you have harder time innovating, and because you have to negotiate/compete with groups that have immense control on the systems your "product" is running on.

Some reading for you: http://www.techdirt.com/articles/200702 ... riod.shtml
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by Mike Lake » Tue May 15, 2012 12:53 pm
cheery

What sort of business do you run? I would be very interested in how you pay your overheads and wages when providing products for free.

I am the first to admit that I learn something new every day but even after 30+ years in the game I have still not figured out how to pay professional software developers, and other staff, when there is no money coming in (I am old-fashioned, I never borrow.) I will ask them this afternoon if they would be willing to work for free for the common good. I will post their response.

The article you mentioned is, in my personal opinion, nonsense. I base this on my own business experience and also knowing from the financial crash that economists understand absolutely nothing. I did not get caught out in the crash because I saw it coming, I prepared for it and I have a very healthy and cynical attitude towards big business (I don't trust them - especially the crooks in financial institutions.)

The article seems to have been written by someone who does not have to innovate or invest or pay the wages at the end of the month or do the VAT at the end of the quarter or pay the corporation tax at the end of the year.

Pontificating comes cheap - doing things is more expensive. On the other hand he may be avoiding or evading tax altogether which is something I have never done. (I know, that makes me stupid.)

I love to compete - that's how I have made money - by making products which out-perform and out-sell other products in the areas where we choose to compete.

I would love to hear from people in business who are making a commercial success out of developing and selling products for free. Anyone out there?
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by Ravenous » Tue May 15, 2012 1:03 pm
From what I understood of the article (didn't understand the business jargon) you make a profit by charging extra for your better product. If your product is going to be better than the free alternatives (or if you can sell the desire to own it) then it'll sell. This applies whether the inferior alternative is free or simply cheaper.
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by jamesh » Tue May 15, 2012 1:05 pm
Mike Lake wrote:cheery

What sort of business do you run? I would be very interested in how you pay your overheads and wages when providing products for free.

I am the first to admit that I learn something new every day but even after 30+ years in the game I have still not figured out how to pay professional software developers, and other staff, when there is no money coming in (I am old-fashioned, I never borrow.) I will ask them this afternoon if they would be willing to work for free for the common good. I will post their response.

The article you mentioned is, in my personal opinion, nonsense. I base this on my own business experience and also knowing from the financial crash that economists understand absolutely nothing. I did not get caught out in the crash because I saw it coming, I prepared for it and I have a very healthy and cynical attitude towards big business (I don't trust them - especially the crooks in financial institutions.)

The article seems to have been written by someone who does not have to innovate or invest or pay the wages at the end of the month or do the VAT at the end of the quarter or pay the corporation tax at the end of the year.

Pontificating comes cheap - doing things is more expensive. On the other hand he may be avoiding or evading tax altogether which is something I have never done. (I know, that makes me stupid.)

I love to compete - that's how I have made money - by making products which out-perform and out-sell other products in the areas where we choose to compete.

I would love to hear from people in business who are making a commercial success out of developing and selling products for free. Anyone out there?


I think you make some good points. Couple of companies come to mind, but they are big. Canonical and Red Hat. And I'm not sure Canonical make much money if any.
There are a lot of small companies that provide free but cut down products, and then make money selling the whole thing - Angry Birds by Roxio comes to mind.
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by obarthelemy » Tue May 15, 2012 1:05 pm
Free as in beer is an illusion. The free (gratis) Linux I used to setup an ARM netbook as a server cost me about 80hrs to set-up semi-reliably. A Windows license +2 hours of work is mighty cheap compared to that, especially since it wouldn't crash several times a week. Now if someone where to do for me as I do for my parents, buying their IT stuff, setting it up, showing them how it works, answering their inquiries, and remoting in when they've FUBARed it.. that would be truly free ! Most of the costs are not licenses, but service and support. At least not until your vendor achieves lock-in, which brings us to...

Free as in speech (libre) on the other hand is very important, especially for file formats, then for scripting/macro languages, then for source code, in descending order of importance. If I can still get at my data, I can switch to another Application. If I have lots of macros, the switch is going to be painful, unless macros are portable too. Side note: evil MS mostly does provide basic data portability; popular websites such as Facebook and Twitter don't, Google mostly does. MS is doing their utmost to put Sharepoint everywhere, because that achieves even stronger lock-in than Office and Windows. Also, apart from the technical considerations, users' and techs' training and habits are important.

Last aside concerning "Do you mean "bloated" like a lot of the MS stuff? In which case I would be the first to agree - almost all software grows like Topsy until it is so overweight that the average user is using about 5% of it." Yep. The question is which 5%. As a student I really really needed style sheets, outlines, and footnotes. As a Sales Rep/Director+Marketing guy, I really used fancy layouts and mass-mailings. And reporting with OLE data from Excel. I tried sticking with Works, tried Open/Libre Office... all those had/have stuff missing that I need, apart from import/export shenanigans, both for files and macros. And that's not counting the pain it is to re-learn something you already know how to do with the former App.
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by cheery » Tue May 15, 2012 1:34 pm
Mike Lake wrote:What sort of business do you run? I would be very interested in how you pay your overheads and wages when providing products for free.

I would love to hear from people in business who are making a commercial success out of developing and selling products for free. Anyone out there?


No matter how successful I were in business, you'd always argument that I might have made more money by selling software instead of services.

There's a conflict of interests here. I care about the software and what value it can create to others as much as I care about my profits. I can see the software produces most value to many people as possible, when it's freely available and accessible for tinkering. Though the whole thing is sort of my hobby.

I'm not doing any profits right now, but you could look around Google, Redhat, facebook, twitter, Rovio... They all provide some or all of their products "for free". Twitter's github account is full of great code snippets!

If you are there for profits, shouldn't you not teach people? What's the point of teaching new competitors into the same business you're having?
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by abishur » Tue May 15, 2012 2:11 pm
Just to add my two cents to this conversation, I've bought software for Linux before in a professional environment. It was only a couple of bucks as I recall, but it was one of those industry level bits of software that everyone in the know gets so the guy has become insanely rich. If I'm remembering it right, it was a piece of software that translated system events to SNMP alerts. Very simple, yet very powerful. It was closed source, but it didn't stifle support or development.

That said, I'm the kind of guy who believes that just about everything has a time and place. There are times when closed source will kill a project dead. It bloats the program with bad code, never gets basic errors fixed, and gives sub-par customer service (they already have your money, they don't need to offer support). I also believe that there are time when you can take everything I just said and fully apply it an open source project (except replace "they already have your money" to "It doesn't cost anything so").

To sit and try to say that one method is inherently superior to the other is, in my humble opinion, short sighted. Each situation needs to be addressed on a case by case basis. Usually, the dividing line for me is who is the end target of this product? If it's the humble basic user, then open source is the way to go, if the target is industry level than closed source is more appropriate.

Side note, I've seen several open source people make a good deal of money beyond Red Hat by putting a donate button on their site. If you like the software you throw a couple dollars the developers way. It courteous, won't break your bank account, and encourages the developer to keep the project alive.
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by andyl » Tue May 15, 2012 4:40 pm
Mike Lake wrote:Just because the RPi is cheap doesn't mean that kids (and the rest of us) shouldn't have the right to professionally written/documented/supported software where someone clearly carries the can.


Have you been using different commercial software to me? I've used loads of commercial software* with bugs, sometimes serious bugs in them. Who carries the can for those bugs? No-one. I've reported them back, the bug was acknowledged and I was told it wasn't going to be fixed. Could I have argued and got my money back from the retailer? Possibly, but the hassle factor probably means that isn't likely. With open source you still may find a bug. However you can fix it yourself or pay someone to fix it. You should then feed the fix back to the original project, or fork it if the original project is dead or doesn't accept your submission.

* Mostly development libraries and tools
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by andyl » Tue May 15, 2012 4:59 pm
jamesh wrote:
Mike Lake wrote:cheery

What sort of business do you run? I would be very interested in how you pay your overheads and wages when providing products for free.

I am the first to admit that I learn something new every day but even after 30+ years in the game I have still not figured out how to pay professional software developers, and other staff, when there is no money coming in (I am old-fashioned, I never borrow.) I will ask them this afternoon if they would be willing to work for free for the common good. I will post their response.

The article you mentioned is, in my personal opinion, nonsense. I base this on my own business experience and also knowing from the financial crash that economists understand absolutely nothing. I did not get caught out in the crash because I saw it coming, I prepared for it and I have a very healthy and cynical attitude towards big business (I don't trust them - especially the crooks in financial institutions.)

The article seems to have been written by someone who does not have to innovate or invest or pay the wages at the end of the month or do the VAT at the end of the quarter or pay the corporation tax at the end of the year.

Pontificating comes cheap - doing things is more expensive. On the other hand he may be avoiding or evading tax altogether which is something I have never done. (I know, that makes me stupid.)

I love to compete - that's how I have made money - by making products which out-perform and out-sell other products in the areas where we choose to compete.

I would love to hear from people in business who are making a commercial success out of developing and selling products for free. Anyone out there?


I think you make some good points. Couple of companies come to mind, but they are big. Canonical and Red Hat. And I'm not sure Canonical make much money if any.
There are a lot of small companies that provide free but cut down products, and then make money selling the whole thing - Angry Birds by Roxio comes to mind.


Oh there are plenty more. For example Mozilla. When you look at smaller companies there are loads more. Most of them are doing OK. Basically the software is free, but they piggy-back on that software by offering services related to that.

For example a company could have a viable business plan which involves writing open source school management software and aim to make money through training and hosting. It is a big change in thinking from the traditional 'product' view that the OP has. It does require some upfront investment, or a forward looking first client. For example take a look at electronic patient records systems in the UK. There was massive investment by the government paying large consultancies shedloads of money for a commercial solution which still hasn't been properly delivered. Moorfields Eye Hospital took a different approach. They paid for an open source platform (called OpenEyes) to be developed. Their system is up and running and other hospitals are beginning to adopt it. I don't know whether the company. I'm not sure whether they employed an open source company to write it or used their own internal staff but they could quite easily have done. As long as you think of software as service rather than as product working out how an open source business could run is not too difficult.
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by Mike Lake » Tue May 15, 2012 5:27 pm
Dear all

I am really pleased this has generated so much discussion. It is absolutely vital that everyone understands what "free" really means - and it rarely means "free".

In some of the examples quoted the development was paid for and the product was made Open Source. That's fine - but someone paid - that's the key point. In the case of the hospital, taxpayers paid for it.

I asked my colleagues if they would work for free in the public good - "in the long term interests of children in our schools. They all said no. One said "how the hell do I pay my mortgage if I am expected to work for free?"

I asked about their experience of Linux in the commercial world. Some of their comments are unprintable. One major customer wanted our stuff to work with drivers in various flavours of Linux and to say there were problems is an understatement. Who to talk to? Who carries the can? Who is responsible for fixing things? Whose door do we go and knock on? Ultimately: who do we sue - who is legally liable?

They also provided a list of development companies who had started with Linux and "free" stuff but are no longer in business. The world of Linux is full of the bodies of those who started with the best intentions.

My ONLY point was that INVESTING major private money and major time in a project simply is not worth it when the whole community seems to think that software should be provided for free.

There is no business jargon in my companies. We get ideas, we develop them, we sell them, we make enough to pay the costs of running the company (including decent wages and taxes) and we invest in new products. It is as simple as that.

If anyone does not understand how to run a business just let me know and I will explain in a couple of paragraphs - it ain't rocket science - mainly "make sure you have enough money coming in to pay the bills."
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by cheery » Tue May 15, 2012 5:42 pm
Mike Lake wrote:My ONLY point was that INVESTING major private money and major time in a project simply is not worth it when the whole community seems to think that software should be provided for free.


I fail seeing the logic behind this combination. If people think they want their software for free then do not sell software to them. It's as simple as that. Come up with something else and invest on that instead.

You can't really force people to buy your software, can you? Well, you can if you are allowed to. I do not accept or allow monopolies on any basis.
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by jamesh » Tue May 15, 2012 5:50 pm
Mike Lake wrote:My ONLY point was that INVESTING major private money and major time in a project simply is not worth it when the whole community seems to think that software should be provided for free.


I think that is where your mistake is, since the whole community DOES NOT think that software should be provided for free. I certainly don't. How you make that money is up to you - sell the software, or sell services, or a combination of the two. But the money is there, and there is more in education than in many other areas.
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by Stateside » Tue May 15, 2012 7:25 pm
The section heading is :
Education
Talk about educational uses and learning resources.

Not " How can I make some money ?.

Perhaps this discussion should be moved to the "Off Topic" section.
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by abishur » Tue May 15, 2012 7:32 pm
Stateside wrote:The section heading is :
Education
Talk about educational uses and learning resources.

Not " How can I make some money ?.

Perhaps this discussion should be moved to the "Off Topic" section.


Well, the OP is discussing about the dilemma of devolving educational software at your own personal expense, though it certainly has ramifications beyond just educational applications. At worst I would move it to general discussions not off topic, but as it stands it's thought provoking and respectful so it's fine where it is ;-) Side note, your response is kinda what the OP is concerned about :-P
Dear forum: Play nice ;-)
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